After 9/11, Tommy Maher, a South Hempstead firefighter, spent days searching for a friend who had disappeared in the rubble.
Maher, 51, never found him. But he did discover a new life philosophy, one that compelled him to travel across the country doing random acts of kindness for those struck by tragedy.
“I made a little pact with myself that whenever I get a chance from here on, I’m going to do whatever I can to make a difference,” said Maher, now a South Hempstead fire commissioner.
This January, he completed his largest project yet, a tour to perform random acts of kindness in the hometowns of all 58 people killed in October’s mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.
Now, he’s preparing to do the same for the 17 victims of last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with 17 acts and a trip to Florida.
Whenever an idea to help someone strikes Maher, he said he listens and acts. It’s led him to multiple disaster zones, like Hurricane Harvey, in his signature van — a white Ford with the phrase “Pay It Forward” in large letters on the side.
The idea to start an acts-of-kindness tour struck him in October: 18 days, 9,500 miles, more than a dozen states and 58 acts of kindness.
“It just wasn’t fair to those people taken the way they were,” Maher said.
His daughter, Kelli, and her friend Aline McEntee, both 16, came along for the ride, and his wife joined him for a later leg of the trip.
“I didn’t take a second to think about it, my reaction was ‘I want to come with you,’ ” said Kelli Maher, who took a few days off from school to go. “This was a step up from what he usually does.”
Kelli Maher and McEntee, of Rockville Centre, helped Tom my Maher set up Instagram and Facebook pages and pick out a hashtag — #Honor58. The group made up T-shirts and bracelets with the victims’ names.
On Nov. 7, they set out for Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, where they left envelopes of quarters taped to the machines in a self laundry store in honor of Bill Wolfe Jr., 42. In a Paris, Tennessee hospital, they bought lunch for the staff where Sonny Melton, 29, had worked. In St. George, Utah, they bought a cooler full of drinks for a car wash staff in honor of Cameron Robinson, 28.
On Facebook, their page grew to more than 5,000 likes. By the second half of the trip, people knew they were coming and offered donations.
By Thanksgiving, Maher had reached every destination except Alaska.
He completed the Alaska leg in January when a flight attendant heard about the project and offered tickets to him and a Las Vegas pastor. They bought coffee for strangers and lunch for a women’s hockey team in Anchorage in honor of Dorene Anderson, 49, and Adrian Murfitt, 35.
But the work isn’t quite finished. With last week’s shooting in Florida, another project starts: #honor17 (known as honor17journey on Instagram). Maher said he’s leaving for Florida on Wednesday and while McEntee and Kelli Maher can’t go this time, they’re preparing a card for their fellow students to sign and send.
“Kindness changes everything,” Tommy Maher said. “When people say one act of kindness can change the world, it’s true.”